I don’t really get Pokémon. I mean, I’m not dumb: I understand the concept of it as a game. What I mean is, I don’t get the fandom surrounding Pokémon games, the excitement players feel when a new title is launched, or when new evolutions and Pokémon types are revealed. A handful of hours in Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, however, I remembered something that I’d learned before and kind of forgotten: Atlus’ MegaTen franchise is my Pokémon. Both feature young characters that go out into the world to capture, train, and evolve non-human beings—it just happens that Pokémon is filled with cute animals you catch on a quest to become the top trainer of the world, whereas Shin Megami Tensei is about conning angels and demons to be your slave as you face off against both God and the Devil. While you’re out there catching Pikachu, Snorlax, and Eevee for the hundredth time, I’m here content doing the same for Jack Frost, Kushinada-hime, or Alice.
My last proper chance to venture out into that world came three years ago with the release of Shin Megami Tensei IV. It was the long-awaited continuation to the main SMT series, and existed as a game that bridged the expansive legacy of the RPG franchise with new-era ideas and upgrades. Two years later, it was revealed that the game would be getting a successor, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. What had started as a conversation about an expansion for the original game—something done for a handful of MegaTen releases over the years—turned into the idea of a project that would build a pseudo-sequel off of the assets and gameplay that had already been created.
One of the first questions players both new and old have going into Apocalypse is what that all means in terms of expectations. For those who did play SMT IV, this is a story that continues on from its predecessor’s “neutral” ending. Here, instead of kicking things off in the sun-drenched Kingdom of Mikado, we’re thrown onto the dark and crumbling streets of Tokyo right away. Shortly after being introduced to our new protagonist, a teenager named Nanashi, we get to watch him murdered at the hands of a powerful demon. Waking up in a strange alternate world, Nanashi meets a being named Dagda, who offers to bring our hero back to life—in exchange for his servitude as Dagda’s new “Godslayer.” Nanashi, along with his childhood friend Asahi and a gaggle of other characters both familiar and not, then set off on a quest to save their city (and world) from a new threat so powerful that even angels and demons fear for their futures.
What about all of you out there who haven’t played Shin Megami Tensei IV before? Well—that’s a complicated answer. Pressed to make a choice, I think that Apocalypse is totally playable without that prior knowledge, and to be fair, I went in having forgotten many of the finer details of what went down before. You’re definitely going to miss out on things—with some elements especially not making sense—but there’s enough “being brought up to speed” moments that you won’t be completely in the dark. In trying to think of a good comparison to make, it might be like watching Star Wars: The Force Awakenswithout having seen the original trilogy. Your connection will be more to the new characters introduced in Apocalypse, and while you’ll come to appreciate these other characters played an important part in getting us to where we’re at now, you’ll not really know what they went through in that process.
I actually think that Apocalypse is the better choice to make if you’ve played neither game and only have time to jump into one of them, and that’s in part because of the story. SMT IV started out very weird—even for longtime fans—and it took about 10 hours or so (if memory serves me correct) to not only get to a point where it felt like a “real” MegaTen game, but also where it felt like the game it would be going forward. For some, that daring twist on the series was a wonderful thing to see, but on some level, I actually kind of like the comfort of the series being what it’s always been, without feeling like it has to try to do something new just because.
Another reason is that the refinements done to gameplay in Apocalypse make for an improved experience at times (for players new and old). There are little bits of polish all throughout the game, such as objective markers so that you clearly know where to head next, the option to pick which partner character backs up you and your summoned demons in battle, and the ability to change your difficulty at any time between the three default settings. Even if you’re a longtime fan, don’t be afraid to use that feature—because, sometimes, you really just want to see what’s next, and don’t have it in you to do the grinding needed to best that particularly nasty boss. I’m a bit more mixed, however, on the option to resurrect from a game over at any time, without any penalty, right where you last were. That seems especially forgiving for a series that has revelled in making players work hard for their progress.
Some of the best changes in Apocalypseaffect demons themselves. Like so many games in the franchise, you’ll be doing a lot of talking to the monsters you meet in the hopes of recruiting them to your side, and those conversations don’t always result in a new alliance the first time. Now, demons that you’ve built up a relationship with may actually pick back up the conversation the next time you run into them, giving an easier path to finally winning them over. Once you’ve got them on your team, demons now have affinities that give either buffs or nerfs to both the skills they naturally have, and any you want to give the new demons you make through fusions. So, for example, you might want a particular demon to focus on both Agi (fire) and Bufu (ice) skills, but due to their affinities, they may get bonuses when casting the former and penalties for the latter. It’s a fun added layer to demon management, especially for those of us who enjoy laboring over making the strongest and most versatile demons that we can. (I did run into a problem, however: focusing the roster of skills my demons had at times screwed me when I needed to use them to make new demons that didn’t follow the same affinities.) Oh, and the secret best feature of Apocalypse? You can now manually re-order skills however you like, which is a godsend for those of us who obsess over organization.
One of the reasons that I came to love the Shin Megmai Tensei series some twenty-odd years ago, and still love it to this day, is Atlus’ take on combat. For so many other RPGs out there, I range from putting up with non-boss battles to actively loathing them, and only rarely actually enjoy combat enough to seek it out. MegaTen has long stood as one of the exceptions to that, and Apocalypse continues to offer deep, strategic, and enjoyable combat. You’ll juggle long lists of elemental and support skills because picking the right ones means the difference between getting an advantage over your enemies and giving them a leg up on wiping your party, yet even the most basic and free-to-use attacks can have value depending on who you’re squaring off against.
While much of the combat engine here is similar to SMT IV, there are a few things that saw tweaking. When you, your demons, or your foes do especially well and gain the “Smirk” attribute, some skills will be powered-up in potential or potency. The biggest example of this are Hama (light) and Mudo (dark) attacks. Any longtime fan knows those tend to be instant-kill skills, but here, they are instead two more standard options for targeting enemy weakness—unless you’re Smirking when you cast them, at which point they can return to their former deadly glory. The partner characters you have with you at any given time will also make more of an impact now. A partner bar will fill up during battle, and once it’s maxed out, your partners will work together to unleash a series of offensive and defensive skills, which can not only help turn the tide of a particularly rough battle, but which also negates the enemy’s next turn. That second bonus alone makes these partner assists hugely valuable, but the downside to this new feature is that you can’t control when they happen, or save up the assist for when it’ll be of more good.
While gameplay, characters, and storyline are always important in gaming, Atlus has also built the MegaTen franchise into one where presentation is just as valuable. Apocalypse is no different, with character designs, UI, voice acting and localization, and even the overall world building showing a level of care and attention that too many other games sadly lack. Speaking of that world, it’s amazing at times how good this game looks on the 3DS, showing that it’s not always a case of how much power or resolution you have, but what you do with what you’ve got. However, this is also the area where my biggest complaint about Apocalypse comes in, and it’s something that also bothered me when I reviewed Shin Megami Tensei IV: the hodgepodge selection of artwork and designs used for the demons. Like before, there’s no one consistent artist or style used for all of the demon profile images. So, while from afar they all sport consistent sprite designs that harken back to the earlier days of the franchise—I’ve no idea how I wanted those replaced with 3D models when playing SMT IV—up close demons range from beautifully illustrated to almost amateur looking. Coming from a company that has employed ridiculously talented artists such as Kazuma Kaneko, Shigenori Soejima, and Masayuki Doi, to allow such a major portion of the game to feature such an inconsistent art style still baffles me.
Looked at simply on the level of the content that it contains, it’s easy for one to possibly think that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse was a cheap-to-produce recycling of assets and ideas in order to gain a few extra dollars from the work that had been put into its predecessor. On a cynical level, sure, you could still say that to some degree. What matters most here is how all of that comes together in the end, and that result is yet another fantastic, enthralling, and devilishly enjoyable addition to one of the best and consistently worthwhile franchises in the Japanese RPG genre. Atlus has once again produced a console-level adventure on a somewhat-outdated portable, one that’s enjoyable even if you can’t tell your Jiraiyas from your Jirachis.
Disclosure note: Chris Holzworth, who previous worked here at EGMNOW as News Editor, is currently employed at Atlus USA where, as part of his job, he had a hand in the localization of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. While that personal relationship played no part in our reviewing and scoring of the game, we felt our readers should be made aware for the sake of total transparency.
While Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse could easily have been a lazy reuse of content from its predecessor slapped together to make a quick buck, a different perspective on the story, a host of improvements, and the return of Shin Megami Tensei IV’s quality gameplay come together for a pseudo-sequel that’s a worthy experience.
M - Mature
|Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version reviewed was for Nintendo 3DS. Review code was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.